Whispers from the Well
Dead men had whispered to Hervor in her sleep for so long she’d almost gotten used to it.
As a child she’d been foolish enough to say what she heard; later she grew smarter, but by then it was too late. The other bondsmaids shunned her, told tales about her over the cooking-fire. A breech birth, they said, came out of her mother wrong end first and killed her in the coming, and you know what that means. Ill-omened, ill-starred. No wonder she claimed to hear ghosts.
But over time, the fear’s sharp edge dulled. Life went on in its daily routine, much as it always had, and there was a new herdsman who despite the tales kept looking at Hervor with an interested eye, until she truly began to forget it wasn’t normal to hear voices that spoke always of murder and betrayal, ravens and blood.
Until the day came when they beat the drum to summon everyone to the garth in front of the hall, and Hervor put down her bucket and ran with the others to stand in a ragged line. Men on one side, maids on the other, and then they waited, and waited; the boy who’d been assigned to keep a lookout ran much faster than a cart moved, and a long time passed before the new arrivals crested the ridge in front of Rognjeld.
At last a small cloud of dust rose above the ridge—it had been another dry spring, sparking fearful whispers of drought returning— and a cart lumbered into view. As if by magic, Gannveig appeared, and the bondsmaids fell silent. They’d all catch it, if the jarl’s wife got angry. Feigald was with her, their son Ungaut at their heels, and together the jarl and his kin waited for the carts to pass through the outer fence.
Hervor studied the procession with a jaundiced eye. She was supposed to be burningly excited about the young woman who sat on the front seat of the lead cart, for Anfinna was to marry Ungaut and carry the keys to the holding on her belt. The cart’s bed was piled high with her dowry, cloth and tapestries and fleeces and more, and behind that one came a second cart similarly loaded. Anfinna was quite a prize.
The people with her interested Hervor more, simply because they were new. Rognjeld didn’t get many visitors. Anfinna’s father, Storleik Geirriksson, was far more powerful and wealthy a jarl than Feigald; the disdainful sweep of his gaze around the holding seemed to question why he was sending even a fourth daughter off to a place like this. Half a dozen armed housemen rode at his heels—half a dozen! When Feigald’s only followers were freeborn farmers and herders, permitted weapons by law, but hardly well-trained warriors. One houseman even carried a sword at his hip, instead of the more common axe. Hervor didn’t like the way his attention snagged on her, the appraising look in his eye. She squared her shoulders and looked away. Behind him…
One of Storleik’s servants was helping an old woman down from the second cart. She had a face like weathered stone, seamed and stained with age, but her wits didn’t seem to have wandered any. She was looking at Hervor, too, with the unblinking, predatory focus of a hawk.
An old woman couldn’t cause the same trouble for Hervor as a sword-bearing houseman. This time Hervor stared back, not caring if Gannveig thumped her for it.
Then someone touched the old woman’s shoulder, and like a soap bubble popping, the intensity was gone. She hobbled to join Anfinna and the others, and Hervor fought the urge to scrub at her arms. Why stare at her like that? True, she was the tallest of the bondsmaids by a good handspan, and broader in the shoulders than some men, but that didn’t justify such a stare.
Feigald was droning through a thunderously dull speech welcoming Anfinna to Rognjeld. By the time he was done, Hervor’s unease had given way to yawning boredom. She almost welcomed it when the bondsmaids were dismissed with a look from Gannveig that said they’d better not think of lingering to gape at the new arrivals.
Hervor retrieved her bucket and joined the others in line at the well to draw water for the guests’ baths. They were chattering on and on about Anfinna, of course, how lovely she was, how rosy her skin, how long her braids, until Hervor could no longer stand it. “Who’d want to be a soft flower like that?” she asked scornfully, interrupting the other bondsmaids. “She’s from the south. Come winter, she’ll be huddled indoors by the fire, crying for home.”
“You’re just jealous,” Isrun said. “You won’t be anywhere near the fire, and you know it.”
“I don’t need the fire,” Hervor boasted, tossing her own braids back. They might not be so long as Anfinna’s, but they were more blonde; let Anfinna be jealous of that. “I’ve got ice in my blood. Come winter, I’ll dance naked in the snow.”
Isrun rolled her eyes. “We can only hope you’ll catch sick and die. Try it, Hervor.”
“I will!” Hervor shouted as the others walked away, leaving her alone at the well. “I will.” This she repeated in a quieter voice as she knelt to tie her bucket to the rope and lower it until it hit the water with a splash. She placed both hands on the low stone edge and leaned forward, putting her head right into the shaft to hear the echoes. “I will!”
Her voice rang against the stones, but when it came back it was no longer hers.
blood bright on the sand
rending our flesh
She sat there, panting, and stared at the well in horror.
Nothing rose out of it. She cast a quick glance around, but nobody was nearby. No one to see her act like a fool—but no one to whisper those words at her, either. Reluctantly, Hervor shifted to her knees and peered over the well’s edge.
Nothing but stone, water, and her bucket on the rope.
She squeezed her eyes shut and growled a curse that would have spurred Gannveig to beat some manners into her. Of course there was nothing. She knew those voices. They’d been with her since child-hood.
But they’d never spoken during the day.
“That’s not fair,” she whispered, opening her eyes again. It didn’t matter if someone came up to the well and saw her talking to the stones; they all thought she was mad, anyway. “Bad enough that you talk to me when I’m asleep; I’ve gotten used to that. But it’s broad daylight!” Her voice rose, but this time the echoes that came back were her own. “You’re not supposed to be talking to me now!”
The voices weren’t supposed to be talking to her at all, whoever they were. They were supposed to go down to Slavinn with the rest of the dead, not torment a bondsmaid who didn’t even know their names.
Hervor dug her fingers into the stones and glared into the well as if the dead men who spoke to her lay under it. “You’d better not play with me like that again. Gannveig already loathes me; I don’t need to give her an excuse to put me outside the fence. Stay in my dreams, where you belong.”
As if she could stop them, should they decide to wander into her waking thoughts as well. But Hervor hoped that speaking firmly might have some effect. Maybe ghosts were like children, and needed a stern hand.
Or maybe she was going even madder than she already was.
Hervor hauled her bucket out of the well and went back to work before Gannveig could find her dawdling.
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly leans on her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Game of 100 Candles and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent along with several other series, over eighty short stories, several poems, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written the epic Rook and Rose trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. For more information and social media, visit linktr.ee/swan_tower.